Is Polyester Recyclable?

9 July 2021

is polyester recyclable

Polyester is a synthetic material used to make around half of the world’s clothing output. What’s more, that figure is set to double due to increased demand from the growing global middle class and consumers’ desire for stretchier, harder-wearing garments. But is polyester recyclable? The sustainability of polyester is something that concerns many environmental organizations. They worry that there is no way to safely and effectively process the active ingredient, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and accumulate in the environment.  Fortunately, thanks to recycled polyester, the process of creating garments from this material is becoming more eco-friendly. Many major brands already use recycled polyester in some of their lines. And others plan to increase their use of the material in the future, preventing PET from simply going to landfill.  Textile Exchange is a big player in this space. As a non-profit,.it’s looking for ways to get big fabric retailers, like Gap and Ikea, to reduce the virgin PET content of their clothing and upholstery. The ultimate goal is to get brands to increase their use of recycled polyester to 36 per cent by the year 2030. 

Is Polyester Recyclable? Here’s How It Works

Recycled polyester is chemically very similar to regular polyester derived from crude oil. The crucial difference is that recycled polyester comes from material already out there in the environment, not virgin plastic. For that reason, many people - including some high-profile green organisations - see it as more sustainable.  Manufacturers make recycled polyester by collecting existing material and then breaking it down into small, flat pellets. Applying heat and mechanical action allows brands to then weave discarded plastics into yarn which they can then sift through machines to make clothing.  What’s amazing about recycled polyester is that it doesn’t have to come from existing polyester at all. In fact, it can come from any PET-containing plastics. Many manufacturers, for instance, begin their production processes with truckloads of plastic bottles from local waste collection. They then feed these into their machinery to break them down into constituent parts to turn into wearable threads. Brands turn old bottles, food packets, and wrapping materials into a confetti-like material during the plastic shredding process, transforming regular single-use plastic waste into items of clothing that could last for many years.  The process is highly efficient too. Manufacturers can transform five regular soda bottles into a t-shirt, giving consumers clothing items that could last for more than five years.  Some brands tout that their plastic comes from consumer waste (because of the images that we all have of landfills packed with soda bottles). But, in reality, most of the plastic for recycled polyester clothing comes from industrial production. Repurposing this type of PET tends to be considerably easier than consumer versions. There’s far less pre-processing, and it tends to be much more standardised, allowing fashion brands to generate more consistent results.  Using recycled polyester is something that most environmentalists support. However, there are some downsides.

The Advantages Of Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester offers a host of advantages over virgin polyester. This appeals to consumers who want to ensure that their wardrobes have the minimum environmental impact possible. 

It’s Just As Good But Requires Fewer Resources

Many people imagine that recycled polyester is weaker and more brittle than its virgin counterpart. But thanks to the way that PET recycling works, that’s not the case. It actually has largely the same material properties as the freshly-made variety, meaning that its fabric properties are nearly identical.  There are numerous environmental benefits of using recycled polyester. For instance, research suggests that recycled polyester requires around 59 per cent less energy to produce than the virgin variety. It may cut CO2 emissions by up to 32 per cent, helping to protect against climate change. Over the course of its lifetime, recycled PET tends to perform much better than its disposable counterpart.  What’s more, using recycled PET also helps to reduce the impact of crude oil extraction from the natural environment. Taking natural gas and oil out of the ground is environmentally damaging and often leads to habitat destruction. Using the PET that is already in commercial products, there’s no need to continue to rely on oil.  There are also strategic advantages too. If the oil supply were to dry up suddenly, countries with a high dependency on polyester would struggle to source the raw materials needed to create new products. But when there is more recycling capacity, sources of new polyester become much more secure and diverse. Fresh PET is arriving in the form of single-use consumer and industrial packaging all the time. 

It Uses A Major Source Of Plastic

Estimates suggest that polyester accounts for around 60 per cent of the world’s total PET production - more than double the amount used in global plastic bottle production. So developing non-virgin supply chains is actually an excellent way to reduce overall virgin plastic consumption. It is conceivable that there could be a sustainable plastic cycle where single-use waste becomes recycled PET which then becomes clothing which is then transformed back into single-use, and so on. This process could continue indefinitely, so long as the processing technology can maintain the chemical structure of the polyethylene terephthalate itself. 

It Stops Plastics From Reaching Landfill And The Ocean

The third advantage of recycled polyester is that it acts as a kind of “plastic sink.” Instead of consumer waste going directly to landfills or the ocean, it winds up in products that consumers can use long-term.  The statistics on plastic in the oceans are quite scary. Plastic, for instance, accounts for around 80 per cent of all marine debris (because of how resistant it is to breaking down). Governments estimate that plastics kill around 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, and one million seabirds per year. Humanity dumps around 12 million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every twelve months, and much of this is in the form of microplastics - tiny particles that are hard to see with the naked eye. Plastics appear widely distributed throughout the environment, with micro-particles now appearing in remote Antarctic ice. If current trends continue, there could be more plastic in the ocean by 2050 than all marine life combined.  There is no sign that humanity will reverse its reliance on plastic either. If current trends continue, then plastic production will likely treble by 2050, with more than 90 per cent of it coming directly from fossil fuels.  Australia is a poor performer in terms of plastic recycling. Estimates suggest that the country consumes around 3.4 million tonnes of the material every year. But only around 10 per cent of it goes to recycling or processing that use recycled components. 

There Is Hope Ahead

There is hope, though. Thanks to emerging movements like recycled polyester in the fashion industry, those trends may reverse. It’s unlikely that we will see a plastic-free world in the next 30 years. But there are now more options than ever to get a grip on the problem and, critically, make plastic waste valuable.  The recycled PET movement will begin to change this dynamic. Taking plastic and transforming it into a useful material makes sustainability more sustainable. When real economic incentives exist, more people are likely to come on board with the idea.

Is Polyester Recyclable Infinitely?

While recycled polyester is clearly an exciting prospect for environmentalists and everyone else who cares about the planet, it’s not without limitations. While recycled polyester comes from materials (like plastic bottles) that are recyclable, the resulting product generally isn’t. That’s because manufacturers blend PET with other materials, such as cotton, to give their products the consumers' properties. So recovering the original plastic is more challenging in fabrics than in other applications. Some companies are working on processes that will make it possible in the future, but these are still at the trial stage of development.  But is polyester recyclable infinitely? Not just yet. Even if processes can split PET from cotton and recycle both, there are mechanical and chemical reasons why you cannot recycle polyester forever. For instance, when plastic bottles go into a recycling plant, equipment washes and then shreds them, turning them back into raw polyester chips. This product then goes through the traditional yarn-making process, creating a virtually identical virgin PET product. Unfortunately, the shredding, reheating and washing processes weaken the plastic, and so manufacturers must combine it with regular virgin polyester to get the strength they want. Thus, in many cases, you’ll see garments advertised as 80 per cent recycled polyester (instead of the full 100 per cent). 

There Are Some Challenges

Chemically, there are issues too. Each time you reheat plastic, it degenerates. The chemical chains that hold it together break down, and it becomes weaker and more brittle. Eventually, manufacturers must use it in lower and lower-quality products before. Eventually, it becomes so weak that it is not fit for any purpose at all.  Not all organisations, though, accept this line of reasoning. While Textile Exchange concedes that current plastic recycling technology has limits, it believes that a “closed-loop” system of polyester reuse may be possible in the future. In their world, consumers could recycle PET-containing clothing again and again without any of it winding up in landfills.  Many environmentalists oppose the notion that researchers should seek to recycle plastic infinitely. In their view, that might encourage consumers to use even more single-use disposable plastics, creating a larger burden on landfills. That’s because most countries, including Australia, still do not recycle the vast majority of their plastics.  However, if that were to change - and people received an income for recycling disposable plastic - then incentives would change. Everyone would try to economise on plastic as much as possible, sending it to recycling plants to convert it into recycled materials with identical properties to their virgin counterparts. 

The Trouble With Microplastics

Commentators also see recycled polyester as a potential source of microplastics (just like the regular version). Proponents of recycled versions view it as a way to prevent plastic from reaching the oceans. However, the story isn’t as rosy as you might think. According to research by the University of Plymouth, UK, each machine wash can cause the release of hundreds of thousands of plastic fibre particles into the water supply. Some estimates suggest that more than 85 per cent of manufactured debris on shorelines is microfiber-based. And both recycled and virgin polyester create the same problem. 

Wrapping Up

Manufacturers use polyester in clothing because it strikes the perfect balance between affordability, strength and durability. Mixing it with other materials allows brands to create clothes that last for years, not months, and makes them more resistant to mould, sweat and abrasion damage. Polyester, therefore, is a miracle material (like so many other plastics).  Unfortunately, virgin polyester comes from crude oil and, if thrown into landfills, adds to the world’s plastic waste problems. Recycled polyester is a potential solution because it uses PET waste to create new items with the same properties as virgin polyester.

It May Not Be Perfect

It’s not perfect, though. While it uses substantially less CO2 and avoids the need for more crude oil extraction, you can’t recycle recycled polyester. Mixing it with cotton and other materials complicates the process enormously. Meaning that most garments made of the material will ultimately find their way into landfills.  There’s also the fact that recycling PET indefinitely to create a closed-loop is challenging. Researchers are currently working on the problem, but technical limitations mean that they can’t yet apply it at an industrial scale.  So, where does this leave the consumer? Well, ultimately, recycled polyester has distinct advantages over virgin polyester. However, it doesn’t yet solve all environmental problems to the satisfaction of all environmentalists. It still has limitations. In the meantime, some consumers are investing their time and money into alternative materials, like bamboo, which may be better propositions overall. You may also like reading this article; is polyester safe?

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